What We Should Teach High Schoolers About Consent

If you're lucky enough to have any education about rape in high school in the first place, it tends to be a combination of shock tactics and severity: no means no, absolutely not, no negotiation; fight off an assailant with your keys and aim for their eyes and groin; and pressure to have sex in a relationship is not loving or healthy. All of these are perfectly valid points — but education can do more; it can help teens, goofy hormonal pre-adults that they are, frame their responses to sexual violence, consent, and sexual pleasure, and hopefully make America's rape culture a bit less toxic, one bit of affirmative consent at a time.

If we're going to educate the next generation about rape, I'm for two things: explaining that victim-blaming is abhorrent, and educating people so that they don't rape in the first place. It's not valid to put the onus entirely on potential survivors and not try to raise awareness of consent as a nuanced, necessary, and (crucially) sexually healthy thing. Rapists, as we all well know, are not just ferocious strangers who leap out of bushes; according to sexual assault statistics, approximately 48 percent of all adult rapists are friends or acquaintances of their victims, 16 percent are intimate partners, and two percent are relatives.

If there is any chance that solid, informed high school education about consent and how it works could prevent somebody from committing rape in the future, then we should take that chance, every time.

That Rape Can Happen To Anybody

Rape and sexual assault are not minor or restricted problems. RAINN, the sexual violence activist group and resource center, points out that the statistics are horrifying across the board: 1 in 6 American women will be the victim of a rape or attempted rape in their lifetimes, while three percent of all American men will be. While it's very important to note that women take the lion's share of sexual violence in modern America, it's crucial not to exclude or alienate male victims, many of whom buy into myths that men can't be sexually assaulted or that arousal means they must have consented.

This is particularly crucial for people of both genders about to go to college. RAINN points out that female college students are four times more likely to be targets of sexual violence than the general population, and male college students are five times more likely than non-students to deal with it. This is the crucial thing to emphasize: that sexual assault doesn't just happen to people who "dress a certain way" or "take certain risks". It's a problem for everybody.

This also means that high school education about rape should provide resources for people who have been or will be victims of sexual assault to go for help. What do you do if you've been raped? If a friend has been raped and doesn't know what to do? If you don't know if you've been raped? Giving people their best possible options, from helplines to local hospitals to survivor organizations (like Women Helping Women for girls), will provide literal lifelines.

That Consent Is Like Tea

Birth Of A Nation director Nate Parker has been a flashpoint for discussions of consent since the revelation of his trial and acquittal for the rape of a fellow student at Penn State back in 1999. (Parker was found not guilty; his co-accused, Jean Celestin, was found guilty and served six months in prison. The victim would go on to commit suicide.) Among Parker's various statements about his past, which I won't detail here, an interview with Ebony on August 27 reveals something we should take as necessary to education about consent among the young. Parker says:

"At 19, if a woman said no, no meant no. If she didn’t say anything and she was open, and she was down, it was like how far can I go? If I touch her breast and she’s down for me to touch her breast, cool. If I touch her lower, and she’s down and she’s not stopping me, cool. I’m going to kiss her or whatever. It was simply if a woman said no or pushed you away that was non-consent."

And this is an incredibly important point. All of us know the "No Means No" definition of consent; but consent is more complicated than simply saying that you don't want something, clearly and loudly. A lack of consent occurs when people aren't capable of saying no, or have changed their minds after previously saying yes, for example. That gap is something that education for teens needs to address, fast.

One of the most valid and clear ways to discuss sexual consent is the viral video of "consent as tea" I've put above here. It lays out the minutiae pretty clearly: if people want tea, give them tea. If they can't actively ask for tea or declare their intentions one way or the other, don't give them tea. Just because they previously wanted tea does not mean they want tea now. And just because they're not vocally opposed to tea doesn't mean they want it; continually pushing more tea their way because you like giving them tea and they haven't said no does not imply consent. (For American teens, this scenario might be better explained using french fries?)

That Affirmative Consent Is Awesome

There is a lot to be said for learning about good, healthy sexual behavior while still in high school. I would have been a lot better off if I knew, for instance, that a University of Texas study from 2007 revealed that people gave 237 reasons for having sex, and they weren't all to do with pleasure: people used sex for revenge, freedom, power, jealousy, reward, possession, gratitude, manipulation, reputation, and a host of other things. We learn about sex as a biological fact, something that could give us STDs, and an act that could be subject to peer pressure, but the more extensive subtleties of it were completely alien. It also would have been good to have sex-positive education: how to achieve an orgasm and have conversations about sex with our partners, for instance.

And into that sex-positive education I would add the notion of affirmative consent. If we explain to high schoolers that the silent or idle acquiescence of a partner isn't sufficient, and that what they really need (and should aim for) is enthusiastic, happy, clear approval, their ideas about a consenting sexual experience will move from "no means no" to "yes means yes". And that's a very important shift.

For the actual definition of affirmative consent, the State University of New York's is an excellent one:

“Affirmative consent is a knowing, voluntary, and mutual decision among all participants to engage in sexual activity. Consent can be given by words or actions, as long as those words or actions create clear permission regarding willingness to engage in the sexual activity. Silence or lack of resistance, in and of itself, does not demonstrate consent. The definition of consent does not vary based upon a participant's sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression.”

So how do you say yes? And how do you understand that a partner is saying yes? This is the sort of thing that young people entering the beginnings of their sexual lives need to know: how to communicate their wants, ask permission, continually reaffirm that both partners are into what's happening, and how to do those things in ways that keep the situation sexy. This is a massive challenge in a society where sexual communication skills are usually learned by trial and error rather than advice, though places like Planned Parenthood provide scripts for teens and students to know how to discuss sex with significant others. But it's a necessary one.

I recognize that there is basically nothing more awkward than talking about sex with giggling teenagers. But if we're going to get beyond the "no means no" model of rape into a more complex understanding of consent, we need to start them young. You may get an eye-roll now, but it could be an eye-opener later.

Image: Pixabay